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At the Halfway Mark

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

It turns out there is a big cliff to navigate once you get past Columbus.

It is now the midway point of the regular season. The Maple Leafs play in Los Angeles on Monday, Anaheim on Wednesday, San Jose on Thursday and St. Louis on Saturday. That’s four games against excellent teams with scant time for practice.

Here’s the good news. The Leafs are nip and tuck for the playoffs with half a season to go. They are second in the league in goals. Yes, Phil Kessel is cold with two goals in his last 10 games but he remains a top-10 scorer.

They’re not a bad hockey team and on some nights they are in fact a very good one. Something about them going 10-1-1.

No one is comparing the Leafs to the 1959 Canadiens but a team with Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, Dion Phaneuf, Cody Franson, the still emerging Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner has the hands and the legs.

Okay, now, here’s the thing. Hockey is a simple game.

Nobody wears a wristbands with offensive sets. There isn’t even a name for a particular defensive philosophy. Just call it a system. That’s all you need to know.

It works this way: harry and, if possible, intimidate your opponent, contest every inch of ice and make sure your good players play better than the other guy’s good players. A great goalie is essential during the lapses all human beings suffer but that’s pretty well it.

All this can be summed up neatly in one word: will. The best teams have the best players with the most will. Sidney Crosby has enough money to buy Cole Harbour but he remains a ferocious competitor. Look no further than Chicago where Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane supply the team’s competitive heartbeat. How have the Flyers done post-Chris Pronger?

Every year the playoffs demonstrate one immutable fact: superior will from an inferior team trumps clubs with more talent.

It is the coach’s job to foster and nurture that will and since Randy Carlyle is no longer behind the Leafs’ bench, the job, for the time being at least, has been handed to Peter Horachek.

The Leafs are 25th in goals against. That’s an indictment of collective will.

“Guys want to play, they try hard,” said straight-talking defenceman Roman Polak. “They’re just not smart. We want to grab it on our own. We don’t want to grab it as a team.”

That gap, the one between individual and collective hard work, is the game’s grand canyon. Working hard collectively, of course, means co-ordinated defensive play, blocking shots, sticking in the zone a few seconds later, charging a puck carrier like you really mean it.

Offence is the vacation in Baja. Defence is the job on the assembly line at Ford that gets you there.

When the Leafs hired Brendan Shanahan to run the club they bought his knowledge of the League, his connection with power brokers, his status among his peers and his intelligence. But what they were really buying was will – the will he displayed over a Hall of Fame career that included 97 fights and nearly 2,500 penalty minutes. Shanahan was plus 151 over his career and won three Stanley Cups on a Detroit team with Steve Yzerman as its hub. He understands winning.

And for a guy who has been universally acknowledged as patient, he sure has sure presided over a lot of firings.

Recall that under Shanahan and GM Dave Nonis the club demoted its two tough guys, Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr, dismissed Randy Carlyle’s three assistants, embraced new more quantifiable metrics, hired 29-year-old Kyle Dubas as assistant GM, lured Mark Hunter from the lucrative kingdom of London and sacked longtime execs Claude Loiselle and Dave Poulin. Carlyle was only the latest casualty.

Able people went out. Able people came in. You can’t say Shanahan has been asleep at the switch. As Leafs GM Dave Nonis said, it’s now on the players.

Which makes next week so interesting.

A bump often accompanies a coaching change. There can be little doubt that staring into the Death Valley part of their schedule as much as the club’s terrible recent play influenced when to pull the trap door under Carlyle. If the Leafs are to regroup, now would be nice.

Finding consistency is job one as the Leafs enter the second half of the season. The team must find a commitment to the defensive play.

If they don’t, in the short term through trade or the long term through drafting and development, Shanahan will have his team.

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